Back in February, a few days after Russia launched its war in Ukraine, I spoke with the political scientist John Mearsheimer. A longtime observer of U.S. foreign policy—on which he has tended to cast a skeptical eye—Mearsheimer largely blamed Putin’s invasion on the West, arguing that, by expanding NATO, the West had cornered Russia, and made a conflict with Ukraine much more likely. Mearsheimer, a dedicated realist, had been making a version of this argument for some time. In 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea and offered support to separatists in Eastern Ukraine, Mearsheimer said that it was predominantly the fault of Europe and the United States. This June, a couple of months after our first conversation, against the backdrop of a war that was dragging on with increasing brutality, Mearsheimer said in a speech, “The United States is principally responsible for causing the Ukraine crisis.”
Recently, Mearsheimer and I spoke by phone again. He had just returned from a trip to Hungary, where he met with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, an ally of Putin. (Mearsheimer is the author of multiple books, perhaps most famously “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” which he co-wrote with Stephen Walt.) During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why he thinks Putin told the truth about his motives for invading Ukraine, why he doesn’t believe Putin is trying to recreate the Russian imperial era, and why he doesn’t want to discuss his meeting with Orbán.
How was the Hungary trip?
It was actually fascinating. I learned a great deal. I was there for five days, Monday to Friday. I had a three-hour meeting with Viktor Orbán.
I’ve heard of him.
Yeah. And I had a one-hour meeting with the President of Hungary.
Let’s just start with other stuff, and then I can ask you about that. Since the last time we talked, what in your view has changed or stayed the same about the way you see the war in Ukraine?
It has become clear that the Russians are having difficulties defeating the Ukrainians, in ways that most people didn’t anticipate back when we first talked. What also changed is that the war has escalated and the Russians are behaving more ruthlessly towards the Ukrainians than they were initially. That the Russians are now tearing apart the electric grid, which is causing immense human suffering and doing grave economic damage to Ukraine, is evidence of this.
Why do you think the Russians are being so brutal?
I think the Russians want to win the war, and to win the war you invariably look for ways to escalate, to gain advantage over the other side.
What do you think a Russian victory looks like to the Russians at this point?
I think their goal is to conquer and control those four oblasts that they have annexed, and to make sure that the Ukrainian rump state that is left is neutral and is not associated with NATO in any formal or informal way.
When we last talked, you told me, “My argument is that [Putin is] not going to re-create the Soviet Union or try to build a greater Russia, that he’s not interested in conquering and integrating Ukraine into Russia. It’s very important to understand that we invented this story that Putin is highly aggressive and he’s principally responsible for this crisis in Ukraine.” How do you think that argument holds up?
I think it’s still true. What we were talking about back in February was whether or not he was interested in conquering all of Ukraine, occupying it, and then integrating into a greater Russia. And I do not think he’s interested in doing that now. What he is interested in doing now that he was not interested in doing when we talked is integrating those four oblasts in the eastern part of Ukraine into Russia. I think there’s no question that his goals have escalated since the war started on February 24th, but not to the point where he’s interested in conquering all of Ukraine. But he is interested for sure in conquering a part of Ukraine and incorporating that part into Russia.
Given that he is interested in integrating into Russia the parts of Ukraine that he’s conquered successfully, does that suggest that if the war had gone better for him and he’d been able to conquer more of Ukraine that he would’ve been interested in integrating those parts too?
It’s possible. It’s hard to say. I think he probably would’ve gone to Odesa and incorporated all of Ukraine that runs along the Black Sea up to Odesa into Russia. Whether he would’ve gone beyond that, it’s hard to say.
There was a recent article in the Times about the liberation of Kherson. In occupied Kherson, students were forced to sing the Russian national anthem. Bills had to be paid in rubles. You could be arrested for speaking Ukrainian. Students were even told that they were Russian, not Ukrainian. It seems that he is very interested in incorporating these areas.
I think that’s true. He said that Kherson is one of the four oblasts that is now part of Russia. The Russians, in fact, have annexed it. They don’t control all of it. They certainly don’t control the city of Kherson today, but they have said that they’re going to come back and take it.
You also said to me, back in February, “The argument that the foreign-policy establishment in the United States, and in the West more generally, has invented revolves around the claim that [Putin] is interested in creating a greater Russia.” Do you think that that’s something he’s more interested in now?
No, I’ve thought from the beginning that this conflict is all about balance-of-power politics. The conventional wisdom in the United States is that it’s not about balance-of-power politics, and, in fact, Putin is an imperialist who is interested in conquering Ukraine for the purpose of making it part of a greater Russia. I don’t think that is the case. I don’t think he had or has imperial ambitions. What motivates him is fear of Ukraine becoming a part of NATO.
Do you think there’s a reason Putin himself has been talking about this in terms of imperial ambitions? He talked about Peter the Great. “What was [Peter] doing?” Putin asked. “Taking back and reinforcing. That’s what he did.” He then said, “And it looks like it fell on us to take back and reinforce as well,” in terms of returning land to Russia. How do you view those comments?
He did not make any comments of those sorts before February 24th. And the only such comment he has made since February 24th is the Peter the Great comment. I don’t think that’s indicative that he is interested in conquering all of Ukraine and making it part of the greater Russia. He has never said that. What he’s interested in doing is conquering those four oblasts in the eastern part of Ukraine. And he was not interested in conquering those four oblasts before the war started. It was only after the war started.
We know that?
There’s no evidence that he was interested in conquering those four oblasts. The war started on February 24th. On February 21st, he gave a famous speech—this is three days before the war started—where he recognized the two oblasts in the Donbas. This is Donetsk and Lugansk. He recognized them as independent republics. So he was not interested in conquering that territory.
He was forced into invading them?
Well, I think that what happened was, on February 24th, they invaded Ukraine. And what invariably happens when a war starts is that not only do goals escalate but the means of waging the war escalate. In terms of the goals escalating, what happened here was he decided at some point that these four oblasts would become part of Russia.
There was an argument about what Putin’s aims were, whether they were primarily imperial—about taking more land and integrating it into Russia—or whether they were about NATO expansion. And then the war starts, and, at least in the areas that he’s conquered, he seems to be pursuing the former goal. It feels a little unprovable to say, well, he’s only doing that now, not because the people saying so initially were right.